Kent’s ‘On the Verge’ never finds its rhythm

CHAMPION — As this endless and ugly election season approaches its conclusion, a little optimism would be a welcome relief.

Eric Overmyer’s “On the Verge: Or, the Geography of Yearning” has the potential to deliver it. Its three lead characters — Victorian-era female explorers — greet their discoveries in “terra incognita” with a sense of wonder and awe, and there is an underlying excitement and anticipation for what the future holds.

I’d love to be able to say the production at Kent State University at Trumbull, directed by Eric S. Kildow, offers that respite, but at least during a sparsely attended Sunday matinee, their journey felt more like a slog.

Overmyer’s script is filled with flowery language and alliteration. It’s almost Shakespearean in that it needs to find a certain rhythm in order to capture its poetry and make the ornate sound natural to the audience.

Sunday’s performance had a hard time finding that rhythm, particularly in the first act. In the opening scene, as the women begin their journey, there seemed to be an extra beat between each line of dialogue, making it feel less like a conversation and more like a series of pronouncements. The actors’ comfort with the language improved, but the production still seemed to miss much of the play’s potential.

I suspect, even at its best, “On the Verge” is a show more likely to generate smiles and nods of appreciation than hearty laughs, but there were no more than a couple audible chuckles at the performance I attended.

The play opens with the three explorers — Mary (Christine Fowler), Alexandra (Sierra Boyle) and Fanny (Lexa Miller) — preparing to venture into what they believe is one of the last uncharted territories on earth. It soon becomes obvious to the audience, if not the explorers, that they are journeying into the future as the women are perplexed and fascinated by such items as manual egg beaters, an “I Like Ike” campaign button and Cool Whip (boy, do they like Cool Whip!). Commercial jingles, slang terms and other words (Watergate!) start popping up inexplicably in their conversations.

They also encounter several people on their journey, all played by Austin Brown, who does a nice job of creating distinctive personalities for the different characters, which range from a leather-jacket-clad troll whose dialogue almost sounds like a rap to a ’50s Las Vegas crooner.

As audiences have come to expect from Kent-Trumbull, the technical aspects are strong. Tony Kovacic’s set design features a gorgeous painted map on the stage floor, and the use of a screen to project images behind the actors helps establish the constantly changing locales. Subtle changes in the lighting design by Leslie Brown also convey the shifts from jungle locales to more urban settings.

Eileen Janis Larson’s costume and hair design establish the Victorian-era time period and serve as a constant reminder of the characters’ frame of reference as they’re hurdled into the 20th century.

“On the Verge: Or, the Geography of Yearning” will be staged at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Kent State University at Trumbull Theater, 4314 Mahoning Ave. NW. Tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for students and senior citizens, $6 for children ages 11 and younger and free for Kent students, faculty and staff. For reservations or more information, call 330-675-8887.